Trendy vs. truth: Can the university survive?

If universities aren’t going to teach truth, beauty, knowledge or reasoning — and they can’t guarantee liberal arts graduates will earn enough to pay their debts — something’s got to give, writes Victor Davis Hanson on PJ Media.

A fourth of liberal arts courses are trendy time wasters, writes Hanson, a classics and military history fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and an emeritus classics professor at Fresno State. Students don’t learn a body of knowledge. They don’t master inductive reasoning and empirical objectivity. They don’t learn to write clearly.

(Trendy classes) tend to foster the two most regrettable traits in a young mind — ignorance of the uninformed combined with the arrogance of the zealot. All too often students in these courses become revved up over a particular writ — solar power, gay marriage, the war on women, multiculturalism — without the skills to present their views logically and persuasively in response to criticism. Heat, not light, is the objective of these classes.

. . .  college is intended as a sort of boot camp for the progressive army, where recruits are trained and do not question their commissars.

Vocational and technical colleges “are upfront about their nuts-and-bolts, get-a-job education,” he writes. They don’t pretend to teach humanities.

 Yes, I am worried that the University of Phoenix graduate has not read Dante, but more worried that the CSU Fresno graduate has not either, and the former is far more intellectually honest about that lapse than the latter.

Federal aid allows colleges to keep hiking tuition, leaving students deeper in debt. Professors complain that “grade-grubbing” students won’t take their esoteric courses. Why should they? Hanson asks.

. . .  does the computer programming major at DeVry take an elective like the Poetics of Masculinity to enrich his approach to programing? Does the two-year JC course on nursing include an enhanced class like “Constructing the Doctor: the hierarchies of male privilege”?

As a young professor, I used to believe in the value of a universal BA that would teach truth and beauty to the masses. I still do, but mostly as instruction apart from the university that now has very little to do with either beauty or truth.

Meanwhile, the economic value of a humanities degree is questionable. Most studies say a liberal arts bachelor’s degree is worth the investment, but how long will that be true? “I am reluctant to make the argument for the humanities on the basis of financial planning, but then the humanities are not quite the humanities of 50 years ago.”

Hansen suggests a national test in math and verbal skills and knowledge for a bachelor’s degree like the bar exams for law graduates. Someone who’d skipped college could take a longer version of the bachelor’s exam.

Most college students pick what they think are practical majors. Business administration is the most popular college major, according to the Princeton Review. Also in the top 10 are psychology, nursing, biology, education, English, economics, communications, political science and computer and information science.

A business built on failure

After 37 years with NPR and PBS, John Merrow claims he’s leaving the non-profit world to go into the remedial education business.

I know it’s going to be a gold mine. All I need are failing kids, and I don’t see any signs that the supply is drying up.

He’s not serious, but many readers missed the satire. I think it’s because his fictional business makes a lot of sense. He writes:

I have some definite advantages over schools: (1) the technology to diagnose deficiencies and create specific programs that address those shortcomings and measure accomplishment; (2) a population of (finally) motivated young people who realize they need certain skills if they want to find decent jobs; and (3) powerful financial incentives that encourage me to teach them quickly.

He proposes self-paced modules, instead of semesters. “Learn it, prove you’ve learned it, and you’re done.”

Students will be motivated to learn so they can move on to the world of work. He’ll be motivated to help them do that.

Unlike today’s educators, I will get paid only when the students succeed. Should I fail, I get hurt where it matters: in the pocketbook. In most education systems, failure is blamed on the students. And then their failure is usually ‘punished’ by promotion to the next grade.

He won’t use the word “remediation,” which is a downer. Instead, he’ll “certify” his students’ skill levels.

If Merrow could teach useful skills to failing students — and be paid only for success  – he’d deserve to earn a profit. Of course, it may be harder than he thinks. And, if it’s not, he’d have lots of competition.

The fact that businesses make money supplying books, tests, technology, desks or pencils — or tutoring,  training and consulting — to schools  is not a problem, if those supplies and services are worth the cost.

 

College majors of the top 1%

The undergraduate majors that provide the best chance of reaching the top 1 percent in earnings are pre-med, economics, biochemistry, zoology and biology, according to the Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey. That suggests many high earners are doctors. The high-earning econ majors probably started businesses.

Some 5.9 percent of art history majors end up in the top 1 percent, beating out chemistry and finance. Perhaps art history majors are more likely to start out wealthy.

Qualifying for a good job is a very important reason for going to college, according to 85.9 percent of U.S. freshmen in an annual UCLA survey.  That’s up sharply since the recession began, edging out ”to learn more about things that interest me.”

Business majors study less, work more

Undergrads study for 15 hours a week, on average, but engineering majors hit the books for 19 hours, while business and social science majors average only 14 hours of study. However, business majors average 16 hours a week in paid work, more than other majors, concludes this year’s National Survey of Student Engagement, known as Nessie.

For the first time, the survey asked about learning strategies, generating some disappointing results, the report says. More than 85 percent of students take careful notes during class, but only half discuss effective studying habits with faculty members or classmates. Two-thirds of students stay focused while reading course materials; only half frequently write summaries of their readings.

Online students report greater use of different learning strategies, according to the report, which says that “it would be beneficial for institutions to actively encourage students to become skilled at a broader range of strategies.”

Critics say Nessie’s questions are too vague to generate useful information.

 

Dropouts are job creators

The U.S. education system trains students to follow the rules and collect degrees, writes Michael Ellsberg in a New York Times op-ed. Dropouts are the job creators who can save America, he argues.

I typed these words on a computer designed by Apple, co-founded by the college dropout Steve Jobs. The program I used to write it was created by Microsoft, started by the college dropouts Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

And as soon as it is published, I will share it with my friends via Twitter, co-founded by the college dropouts Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams and Biz Stone, and Facebook — invented, among others, by the college dropouts Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, and nurtured by the degreeless Sean Parker.

American academia is good at producing writers, literary critics and historians. It is also good at producing professionals with degrees. But we don’t have a shortage of lawyers and professors. America has a shortage of job creators. And the people who create jobs aren’t traditional professionals, but start-up entrepreneurs.

From kindergarten through undergraduate and grad school, students learn few entrepreneurial skills or attitudes, Ellsberg writes. Students don’t learn about sales, unless they take a class on why sales and capitalism are evil. They don’t learn to network with others. Creativity is stifled. Worst of all, they don’t learn how failure can lead to success.

Our education system encourages students to play it safe and retreat at the first sign of failure (assuming that any failure will look bad on their college applications and résumés).

While some jobs require a college degree, many people find jobs in the informal market, where who you know and what you’ve done matter more than paper credentials, he writes.

Parents could refuse to pay for useless degrees, but most are ”caught up in outmoded mentalities about education forged in the stable economy of the 1950s (but profoundly misguided in today’s chaotic, entrepreneurial economy).”

Employers could overturn the system “if they explicitly offered routes to employment for those who didn’t get a degree because they were out building businesses.”

OK, for the exceptionally talented and self-educated few.  But most college dropouts aren’t Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.  And some people do learn useful things in college.

 

Smart cuts for Pell Grants

The cost of Pell Grants is growing so rapidly that even supporters are looking for ways to cut costs without denying college access to low-income students.

Also on Community College Spotlight:  A joint class in business and writing is organized around the “The Wire,” a TV series about drug dealers and cops in Baltimore.

Gates v. Jobs on liberal arts

While Bill Gates urges governors to invest in college disciplines”that actually produce jobs,” Apple founder Steve Jobs says “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

New York Times’ Room for Debate asks which college drop-out is right?

After the first 10 years, liberal arts majors catch up to graduates in career-oriented majors, writes Edwin Koc of the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

In 2010, the average offer to a computer science major was $60,473; the average offer for a history major was $38,731.

. . . Once in a career path, the more general skills of communication, organization and judgment become highly valued. As a result, liberal arts graduates frequently catch or surpass graduates with career-oriented majors in both job quality and compensation.

Only 39 percent of U.S.-born technology CEOs hold engineering, computer or math degrees, responds Vivek Wadhwa,  director of research at Duke’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization.

Humanities students learn to write, a critical skill for the business world, argues Mark Bauerlein, an Emory English professor.

To be honest, some humanities majors learn to write.

Employers pay a premium for business majors, but humanities majors will be worth more, argues Richard Vedder of the Center on College Affordability and Productivity.

. . .  in the core business areas of management and marketing, I have long felt that the instruction is largely of limited intellectual content and little practical utility – people can learn how to sell wickets or manage a small group of employees just as well by studying engineering, communications, history, or, for that matter, mortuary science. . . . Salary data suggest that earnings rise dramatically with age, suggesting much “learning” is done on the job, and students studying intellectually weak and information-deprived courses in business are not going to have the critical thinking skills that might assist in the post-graduate learning-by-doing process.

Business is the most popular college major, followed by psychology, nursing, biology, education, English, economics, communications, political science and computer science, according to the Princeton Review.

The most profitable majors are: engineering, economics, physics, computer science, statistics, biochemistry, math, construction management, information systems and geology, says WalletPop.

On Payscale’s list of degrees with the best mid-career pay, a government degree is the top earner that isn’t math-centric. Business majors aren’t high on the list.

Surprise! Engineering beats English in pay

Surprise! Engineering graduates earn more than liberal arts grads, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Graduates with engineering degrees averaged $56,000 in their first full-time jobs out of college, compared to $34,000 for Communications and English majors. Computer science majors start at $50,000.

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The PayScale survey included 11,000 people who graduated between 1999 and 2010. The reported starting pay was adjusted for inflation to make the salaries of graduates from different years comparable.

While accounting and economics majors do fairly well in their first job, business and marketing majors don’t earn much more than social sciences and liberal arts majors.

The analysis looks at starting pay for people with four-year degrees. It does not look at pay for people who earn master’s or professional degrees.

The business of '21st-century skills'

As Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) becomes more influential, critics charge it’s a way for high-tech companies to influence schools, reports Education Week.

“The closer we look, the more P21’s unproven educational program appears to be just another mechanism for selling more stuff to schools,” Lynne Munson, the president and executive director of Common Core, a Washington group that advocates a stronger core curriculum, wrote in a recent blog item.

For Ken Kay, the president of P21, such criticism amounts to a “cheap shot” by those who don’t believe that the education system should be more responsive to business needs. . . . “All we’re trying to do is lay down a thoughtful set of design specs [for education].”

Business members of P21 become part of “a proactive process for creating a new vision of education,” Kay told Ed Week.

They have new networking opportunities and better access to federal policymakers and state leaders. Finally, they can access “early intelligence” about where the education system may be headed in order to help ensure that products and services align with that vision.

Recently, Karen Cator, a P21 board member and former Apple executive, was named head of education technology initiatives in the Education Department. But P21 isn’t pushing technology as the silver bullet, Kay says. It’s much broader.

Education historian Diane Ravitch, a Common Core trustee, thinks that P21 doesn’t know much about curriculum.

She scorns, for instance, its recently released “skill map” for 12th grade English that suggests having students reduce dialogue from Shakespeare to a series of text messages.

Kay says P21 is a catalyst, not a designer of standards, curriculum or tests. However, the group is starting a project to “devise assessment prototypes that measure 21st-century skills.”

My problem with P21 is not the business end of it. I’m dubious about the education part, which often seems fuzzy and faddish.

P21 has poor learning skills, writes Common Core’s Lynne Munson, complaining the group has dismissed sound advice on improving the program.

Teens lose interest in business careers

Teens are interested in careers in medicine, science or engineering, according to  Junior Achievement poll.  Business, once the top choice, has slipped to fifth after entertainer, professional athlete and teacher.